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Origin of Species: Fontainebleau

A leading American tours the birthplace of bouldering, Fontainebleau, France, and reports on how for a hundred years “Font” has been the stage for the most difficult moves on rock.

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Mike Rafiti comes to grips with le Bibloquet, Cul de Chien. Photo by Nathan Smith.It’s 5:45 a.m. and I’m driving to Fontainebleau. Outside my window, fields of seedlings are green, damp and cool. Moisture sparkles in the fog, now peeling back from the tilled soil like a tide, receding through the woody edge, tucking into the valley corners before vanishing in a cold butter sunrise. Deer and squads of rabbits patrol the fields. Pheasants strut along the roadside bramble.

I’ve been timing myself on this rural rally course for the last four weeks. Bouncing into downhill curves following the drainage works, cutting roundabouts, and straddling speed bumps through four tiny sleeping towns in quick succession, each separated by swaths of farmland and thicket. The early morning soundtrack polishes the lens. Beethoven seems to be the finest, but some days there is techno, punk, strange fantasy metal, ’90s hip-hop, often something lounge-y, maybe Nirvana.

The hunter measures conditions and this season has been an odd one meteorologically. My fifth visit to ’bleau, and the shakiest weather yet. Rare, fleeting and utterly trophy. So, early to bed and so forth. Off and on for a few weeks I creep through coffee and breakfast (don’t wake the house mates), having packed the night before, and set out across the fields to the work. Not like punching the clock at the restaurant. More like building a pyramid.

Sometimes I stop and warm up quickly at Roche aux Sabots. A few blue-circuit problems in the tennis shoes. Tall reds sort the head. This area can be like North Mountain at Hueco on a nice morning but at this hour no one’s here.

More often, I just rocket on toward the work, carried by the music of the day. A brisk walk in, just under a kilometer. The washer-sized stone in the parking lot is dry. A bit of frost lingers on the grass at the park’s edge. I’m hurrying, loaded with pads—a Mondo, two Drop Zones, and a big, borrowed tri-fold. A pause for breath after the last little hill, hand to the bone-white stone, clean and untouched today except for me feeling the pulse. C’est sec. It’s dry. Ca colle. That sticks!

At Font, the temps must be just right. I usually have about a 45-minute window on a good day when I’ll reach my high point, where the littlest things become big things.

At Font, the temps must be just right. I usually have about a 45-minute window on a good day when I’ll reach my high point, where the littlest things become big things. It must be cool and dry to climb to this point. I must move with tension, and get lucky. In my head it’s merely “stick, step, hook, snatch, step, slap, top out.” I usually slide off at “hook.” One nice day at about 7 a.m., I fell right after “snatch.” On a bad day, I shoe up, chalk up, pull on mid-sequence and slap for … nothing. There is no hold on the bad days and I pack up immediately and head back to the gite.

Most of the time, it’s just a bit too warm for me but my friend Michele seems to be fine so I continue to try, working the sequence—kneading dough, hammering steel. Most of the time overtones of frustration and resignation coexist in a simmering balance. Some days I have to crunch through the woods downhill, looking for a shoe, or my hat.

My resolve is unshakeable, thankfully. I know I’ll climb the thing sometime, maybe next season, and until I do, I get to work on one of the best climbs I’ve ever tried. I get to. I’m lucky enough to understand that, and as such, however long it takes, I will participate in a real story with real emotion: joys, sacrifice and eventually celebration. And when the work is done, it’ll feel great, and I’ll move on to the next pyramid.

For over a hundred years, the botanical preserve of Fontainebleau, a rustic forest located one hour south of Paris, has been the stage for the most difficult moves on rock. The very progression of climbing can be read in the problems, scattered across the shady forest. While the climbing world is piqued with recent news of V15s and V16s, the Bleausards—curators of the Magic Forest—quietly carry on with their own history, setting and recording the standards of their insular and exemplary bouldering world.

At Font footholds are of primary concern and texture is variable, infamously dependent upon conditions that tend to be particular to each problem. The structure of the stone requires a mastery of techniques that need to be refined, slowly improved with age, familiarity and practice. The climbing is cerebral, faith-based, and an acquired skill … and for most people an acquired taste.

Marc LeMenestrel and his L’Alchimiste (8b). Photo by Stephan Denys.Chances are, if you’ve been to Font you’ve been graced and dismayed by the spectacle of any number of graying, floppy-slippered ninjas hiking your project and moving on to 20 other problems you may never finish, or even start. Often a single move will take uncounted attempts to understand, but as frustrating as the experience may occasionally be, the effort becomes a natural part of the encounter and you begin to find pleasure in the need to “work something to death.”

One can really live with these climbs. It’s a pleasure to have such projects to pursue for their own sake—lines that mean something, lines that need no explanation, life-goal climbs. Font has lines that will last as long as climbing exists. These are the lines you surrender and swear to, you give and give again for. Those that keep you mindful, humble, open, inquisitive and focused. These are lines that are selected like a university or religion.

L’angle Allain, La Marie Rose, l’Abbatoir, Carnage: brilliant ascents from a long Golden Era following the Second World War, as Font was breaking free from the cocoon of alpinism. These were the problems that established bouldering as an end unto itself. The climbers of this age founded new grades, gave us the modern climbing shoe, and the first dirtbags. Parisians constructed hidden bivouacs in the forest for long weekend sessions, coming down by train and bicycle to explore, to compete with other climbing clubs, to drink wine and play in the woods.

With time, technique, and a changing of the guard, the first 8a in the forest followed with Jacky Godoffe’s 1984 opening of C’etait Demain, and soon thereafter Marc Le Menestrel’s much-lamented bloc L’Alchimiste (8a+/b), a problem that was subsequently vandalized/destroyed by a competitor. Footwork master Philippe Le Denmat, author of the prominent and iconic slab Duel (8a), opened the first 8b in the forest: Enigma, repeated only once, by his son, before a crucial foothold broke. In these halcyon years, Fred Nicole, a name now synonymous with standard-setting climbs, appeared on the scene, adding difficult sit starts to several lines of note, as well as decoding the moves to make the first ascent of Karma (8a), and La Pierre Philosophale, trés recherché at “hard 8b.”

As the numbers piled up, the absurdities and contradictions of hard bouldering and its particulars were slowly unmasked: Laurent Avare opened the longtime project Kheops (8b), joking that it must be 7c+ because he could do it but not Verdict, hard 8a, a line a friend had opened days before and rated 7c+.

The cycle continues, and a new generation has appeared to expand the lists of the Magic Forest and carry Font into tomorrow. With whole new areas opened seasonally, the archives of Fontainebleau are always expanding. Even in the well-traveled heart of Font, the Cuvier, grand projects of this age or the next stand as silent sentinels. History waits.

Chris Schulte is one of America’s strongest boulderers. He specializes in “compression” problems that involve core-intensive sloper squeezing, a style well suited to Font, where he has climbed numerous famous, hard problems, including Gecko assis and Kheops assis, both V14.


Vincent Pochon
Pochon grew up in Marlanval, with the boulder that was to house his line Elefunk (8b) in his backyard. Literally. He is big, as is easy to determine when one sees his lines; the huge moves and dynos of Electro (8a+) or Welcome to Jamrock (8b) in Puiselet, or the giant span on Narcotic (8a+/b), in Recloses. His vision and determination resulted in the FA of the Big Island (8c), shown here, a long-standing project in a small and individual area. Twelve to 14 moves long, on a variety of slopers, edges and bad pinches up a 45-degree overhanging prow, it is a test of staying power, tension and stillness, and likely the hardest “up” problem in the forest, with only one repeat to date.

Vincent Pochon taking advantage of optimal conditions at night on Welcome to Jamrock (8b+), one of Font’s two stand-up problems of the grade, and unrepeated. Photo by Stephan Denys.

Olivier Lebreton
FAs of Hip Hop (8a+)/Hip Hop Assis (8b), Gecko Assis (8b+), le Toit du Greau, and Tigre et Dragon. Once the young gun of the forest, Lebreton has climbed in Font for 18 years and continues to open new lines such as Bleau Sacre (8a+) and l’ Apparremment bas (8b), as well as Le Convecteur Temporel at Rocher St. Germain, a new enchainment at 8b/+. In this photo, Dave Graham gets his A Game on for the sit start to Gecko Assis.

Photo by Stephan Denys.

Sebastien Frigault
Frigault opened Trip Hop (8c), which consists of several meters of 7c+ slopers into an 8b. Trip Hop is one of many difficult overhangs opened by this school teacher. If it’s in Font and it’s really hard and steep, it was probably put up by Seb. He can claim rare jewels such as MeCanique Elementaire (8c, shown here), le Dernier Fleau in the Fatman roof, and the mysterious Dune, an 8b+ single move from underclings, possibly only repeated once.

Photo by Stephan Denys.

Dave Graham
Contributed FAs of the crimpy Sideways Daze (8b), Satan i Helvete (8b), and the excellent Big Dragon (8a/+) at Petit Bois. He is one of three Americans (along with Chris Schulte and Paul Robinson) to climb 8b+ in Font and is shown here working The Island (8c).

Photo by Stephan Denys.

Fred Nicole
FAs of Karma, Pierre Philosophale, Fatman assis, Hale-Bopp.

Fred Nicole’s lines have inspired thousands, and pushed our imaginations to stretch the possible into reality. The first to climb the grades 8b, 8b+ and 8c, he redefined what is possible. His vision and passion is largely responsible for the development of the hardest lines in the best (and best known) areas on earth, from Magic Wood to Hueco Tanks, to the Rocklands.

This photo of Fred (above), spotted by Jacky Godoffe, making the first ascent of Karma, made me decide to pursue bouldering. For years I had the problem in my mind—it was on the “life list.” When a hold was destroyed, I was crushed. When re-ascended, I was elated. And when the day came when we walked an hour to Cuisinere and I rocked over my heel, shown in this photo of me (right of Fred Nicole photo), to the finishing jug with a thunderous yell resounding in five languages, it was one of the best moments of my climbing life.

Kevin Lopatap
A tall, thin university musician, Lopata plays a variety of concert instruments. As much as he works, he says he feels “lucky to be able to get away to climb a few weeks out of the year.” Still, the encyclopedic website features video of him climbing almost every hard, mysterious problem in the forest, with beta different from that of most any other human. His la Force du Destin (8b+) was unrepeated until this past winter, when the second ascent fell to Paul Robinson, shown in this photo (right), on that send.

Julien Nadiras
FAs of Chaos (8a+ and shown in this photo), Gecko (8a+/b), UBIK and Assis (8a+/b), Mad Maxx (8a+), Surplomb de la Mee assis (8b), Beaux Quartiers (8a/+) and many modern classics like SuperTanker (8b+).

Fiendishly strong as a compression climber, Nadiras made one of the only repeats of Tonino ’78, a sandstone compression test in Italy’s Mescia that may be one of the hardest squeeze problems around. Once painfully close on a project of tomorrow, the futuristic sit start of Imothep, he now lives in Grenoble and makes ski films.

Philippe Le Denmat
Slab master of planet Earth. FA’s of most hard Font slabs, including Duel (8a and far left photo), Lacrima (8b) and Enigma (8b and right photo) as well as Golden Feet (8a+). He often climbs sans crash pad and wears floppy climbing slippers like rubber socks. His son, Loic, is the only person to have repeated his hardest lines. Duel is the most famous hard slab in the world.

Paul Robinson
Paul’s first trip to Font reads like a lifetime of dedication to the forest. In three months he climbed nearly every problem of note, including the second ascent of Kevin Lopata’s La Force du Destin, as well as rare ascents of the power-endurance testpieces Angama and Trip Hop, both given 8c. He did Kheops Assis (8b+, climbed in the left photo by Olivier Lebreton and above by Laurent Avare) in under an hour.

“You can’t climb in a gym your whole life and climb here,” he says. “It requires technique and a true understanding of one’s body. I feel like a much more rounded climber after climbing at Font. I learned some great techniques and I know that it will help me in the future.”

Photo by Stephan Denys.